was fun. In a recent issue of this newsletter, I mounted an argument that people ought up and quit Netflix. As happens, people were intrigued. A happy few wise and sagacious individuals announced to me that they were fully convinced, and that they were duly hastening to forgo the Netflix monster. Others were less persuaded, and a few professional film critics even came close to taking umbrage. Brett McCracken worried that I was replacing one legalism with a new one
, and defended a modest policy of intentionally watching Netflix. “If you want your Netflix diet to be healthy and nourishing,” he proposed, “it’s possible. There is a broccoli to be found alongside the candy.”
And then there was this particularly valuable email, from an inordinately thoughtful reader:
Film in your critique is dismissed rather easily — “unless one is willing to pursue Cinema as an art-form”. Why should we not? I think any moderately discerning reader distinguishes between kinds of books. I doubt you would argue that reading a steady diet of pulp western serials or romance novels would make you substantially less “hollow-chested” at the end of the day than a steady diet bad films. Good film, like good novels, demand engagement. As in reading, in film seeking out the worthwhile takes effort. Communally, good films lend themselves to deep conversation, not “pseudo-thoughtfulness” but deep encounters between human beings as they engage with and resolve ambiguities, disagreements and insights in an immediate way, that novels do not. I have personally found few greater joys than sharing a bottle of wine and conversation with a small group that has just watched a good film together. It’s lovely, and it builds real conversation and intimacy. That I can do this in my own home, on a high quality screen with a good sounds system, for reasonable cost, and with good scotch at hand I think is a towering achievement of the modern age. The difference between two hours a week of thoughtful, communal engagement and 20 hours a week of binge-watching whatever the next addiction designed product on Netflix is not merely a difference of degree, but of kind.
Embedded in all of this however is an assumption of “goods” that is not terribly unusual within media ecology, but requires further examination. The embedded prior is that our times are “semi-serious” as opposed to prior times. It is instructive to read some of the critiques of novel reading from the early 1800s, a short and particularly humorous one here
The careful reader may note some familiar themes.
But what, I think we should ask, did we lose or gain with the arrival of the technology of the novel? We inordinately privileged the interior life of characters, we disrupted the practice of evening conversation, we ceded the moral instruction of our children to strangers! How could the tradition of oral storytelling by elders to the younger generations compete in a post-novel world! The list of evils could go on! Any novel good enough to read should be read aloud in a public place, no? Similar critiques could be made of recorded music, the arrival of the telephone, broadcast professional sports, broadcast *college* sports (Lord help us.) etc. etc. etc.
In the end, I am coming more and more around to agree with your exhortation to quit Netflix. But my arrival at that conclusion has much to do with the particularities of what Netflix, by its very nature demands from its users. Your argument here, I believe, dilutes the urgency of that conclusion.
It may be disappointing to those hoping for a scrum to hear that I almost entirely agree with these rejoinders. But, well, I do: there is a thoughtful, intentional form of watching film that is available to us, and yes, the algorithmic-induced torpor of Stranger Things makes it a distinct form of media from movies.
And yet, I still have the temerity to think that everyone should up and quit Netflix. Seriously, do it. It’s liberating; it’s freeing; it will make you inordinately happy. You will discover not only that you have time, but that you have the mental freedom that arises from not caring about the latest eye-candy that Hollywood has bestowed upon us.
More to the point, my concern about Netflix is the moral ecology that such consumption creates within homes and communities. If I may speak with some concern about the college students I have taught, they not infrequently will stay up until 2 AM Netflixing (even if they don’t ‘chill’ as well). They have none of the arts of resistance to such addictiveness that someone who remembers life before Netflix might have. Netflix and televisions in the home have changed almost everyone’s default behaviors when we are tired or interested in being entertained. Even when people are intentional, as the professional movie critic (and friend!) Brett McCracken doubtlessly is, having the medium present as an option means the temptation to indulge in the time- and energy-stealing form of entertainment is far stronger than it would otherwise be.
This could be true of novels as well, and yes, there were real losses when novels seized our imagination as an art form. We sacrificed poetry and singing, for instance, and with the loss of them the unique type of formation they offer was reserved to elites. So my argument isn’t that novels as a medium are optimal—only that they are better for becoming a thoughtful person than film. If nothing else, novels are far more likely to induce us to sleep when we’re tired than a movie or Netflix ever will. I suspect that no one, ever, was properly rested and renewed by watching a movie—except for maybe Gospel Coalition editor Joe Carter when he watched Tree of Life, because he slept the whole time.
If this commits me to a kind of declinism about technology, so be it. Someone has to be standing at the end of all things shouting “no” as humans give up living and hook themselves to virtual reality machines. The question is not simply one of this media versus that, of moving images versus words: it is a question about the inertia and drift at work within our world, and what we ought to do to resist it. Film critics may justly undertake half-measures, and remind us all that abuse is not proper use. But for the rest of us plebes, we do as well to walk away from the whole business.
Again I wonder: what do you lose by quitting Netflix? It turns out: not much. Brett is doubtlessly right that this is the Golden Age of Television, but it is also an age of total moral decay—especially in the environment out of which that so-called “Golden Age of Television” comes. To continue to participate in this is to slowly adopt lower and lower standards for what is permissible viewing. We don’t need to count body parts, as someone on Twitter did recently, to know Game of Thrones is pornographic. But no one cares about the ic, part—because that’s how cultural drift works. Checking out of the complex entirely preserves, if nothing else, our capacity to be shocked by the advertisements we now see at the Super Bowl.
A few years ago, I wrote a cover story for Christianity Today on the phenomenon known as “radical.” I critiqued it then for diminishing the prevalence and role of institutions, and I would criticize it the same now. But what the radical movement also understood is that the modern era demands a rigor and asceticism in order to retain one’s own mental sanity. This ascetic impulse lies near the heart of the evangelical temperament, and it is one of its greatest strengths. Giving vent to to that ascetism by opting out of the superficially innocuous practice of Netflixing would improve our mental health, I think, if only by helping us rediscover the quiet necessary for deep and substantive reflection (because unlike novels, films make noise).
But opting out of Netflix would also, I’d wager, improve our bonds with one another. For many people, Netflix and its corollaries seems like a replacement for the difficulties and struggles that invariably arise from having thick family bonds or being immersed in other rich communities. When I gave up Netflix, I realized I wanted to have a life that was too full for Netflix, that had too many people who made too many demands upon me. If I only had energy to crawl to bed after caring for those around me, so much the better. In this way, giving up Netflix means I lose—nothing, but gain the whole world. Seriously, quit Netflix.
I’ll close with this: the form of this world is such that the ordinary virtues of past generations have now become heroic. The virtue of chastity means something different today than it did even fifteen years ago: it requires a rigor, an asceticism, an energy in doing the right that previous generations have never quite required. The abuse of such media may not destroy its illicit use. But we have gone well beyond the need for sober, careful moderation in our uses of such deadening media. We now require Stylites and Anchorites to rise up and say “no” to a world that would ossify our souls and darken our minds by giving us exactly what we desire: freedom from thought and from responsibility.